Abnett & Lanning: A Cosmic Odyssey Into "The Hypernaturals"

Thu, August 23rd, 2012 at 9:58am PDT

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, Staff Writer

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are most commonly referred to in comic book circles by the name "DnA." The name fits well for the UK writing pair behind a host of comic series and events as over the past decade-plus, they've proven some of the most adept scripters of science fiction in the mainstream comics. As it turns out, cosmic ideas are in their actual DNA.

Earlier this week, CBR explored the pair's contributions to DC's "Legion of Super-Heroes" franchise and the stories that gave birth to Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy." Today, our massive two-part interview continues as DnA dig into their cosmic creator-owned series "The Hypernaturals" published by BOOM! Studios.

Set 100 years after a super intelligent A.I. called The Quantinuum redefines life on planet earth, the Hypernaturals are a rotating team of superheroes whose five-year terms of service see them crisscross the galaxy protecting humanity's interests. When the most recent team of recruits goes missing at the other end of a wormhole, a ragtag group of former Hypernaturals and fairly green recruits must team up to solve the mystery.

Below, Abnett and Lanning explain what the sci-fi building blocks of this series and its world are, how they're writing relationship has changed over the course of going creator-owned, why character comes first in the book from love triangles to celebrity obsessions and how the first year of "Hypernaturals" stories will build up to be their cosmic "Watchmen."

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CBR News: Let's talk about your new series "The Hypernaturals." I wanted to start by talking about how you divide the writing between you. I get the impression from what Dan said last time that Andy does a lot of the world-building pre-work. How do you typically set up a big cosmic series, and how has that process been changed or reinforced as you've done "Hypernaturals"?

With "The Hypernaturals," Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are building their own cosmic mythology

Dan Abnett: I think it's fair to say that we've always worked together because everything we do is based upon conversation and a shared enthusiasm for the subject we're dealing with. Any project -- "Hypernaturals" is a perfectly good example of it -- grows out of us sitting around and letting those ideas come from both of us. It's usually a hugely animated, often excitable debate. We'll make notes and develop it and build it up from there. And that gets refined into working documents that get approved by editors.

The actual physical division of labor in terms of writing scripts is really a matter of what needs to be done and who's around to do things. Generally speaking, Andy constructs plots -- either beat sheets for me to script off of or plots for artists if we're doing the Marvel Method. I tend to provide dialogue and the finished words you read on the page rather than the structure of the story line. But the absolute muscle and sinew and gristle of the story comes from both of us, and that's always been the case.

Andy, would you say there's anything different about "Hypernaturals" from your working perspective?

Andy Lanning: It's pretty much the same method involved, though I think the major, major difference with "Hypernaturals" is that it's creator-owned, so we are creating this world whole cloth -- every aspect of it. So it's a lot more labor intensive because if we introduce a car, a soda or a character, all of that has to be developed. And we want to be able to develop it in the most fully realized way possible. That's great fun. It's a lot more heavy lifting involved because we can't fall back like at Marvel and DC on 30, 40 or 50 years of continuity to plunder stuff from. We're inventing it ourselves. But we really enjoy that process -- particularly when it comes to the science fiction stuff.

There's a lot of world-building conversations we're having which aren't necessarily seeing its way wholesale onto the page. We've got loads of documents of background material that we're sort of filtering into the book via these background text pages in each issue. They're interviews, adverts and magazine extracts from the world which are helping to flesh it out. And also, it's helping us to use some of this extra material. We're producing quite a lot of it. So the actual mechanics of writing the comic have stayed the same. It's just that the stuff going into that which is more labor intensive, but because of that very nature, it's creatively rewarding.

In this series, the whole world seems to be built on the idea of the Quantinuum, a super A.I. computer that does everything in society -- communication, transportation, you name it. So far, it seems like a pretty benign force, but if sci-fi has taught me anything, it's that self-aware computers are dangerous. What do you find most interesting about that set up? What does the Quantinuum give to the world in terms of it being a stable utopia or something on the brink?

Abnett: Well, I think the Quantinuum is part of the key to the way we've deliberately built this world. Andy and I have always been fascinated by the idea of the singularity -- the point at which machine intelligence outstrips the capabilities of the creators, that is human beings. This computer has become so smart that it can build computers that are even smarter by itself. So the point at which humans initiated that process, they are left behind because they can't understand the quasi-magical nature of what they've unleashed.

And that's always seen as a bad thing in science fiction. It's always the point at which humanity is left behind. We thought, "Wouldn't be interesting to tell a sci-fi story where that isn't necessarily a bad thing?" In "The Hypernaturals," there's this wonderful, extraordinary, almost magically powered universe we've set our stories in, the result of a human breakthrough which has transcended the gulf. We now have essentially built a god to protect us, and that god has given us the benefits of being able to change ourselves, travel around the galaxy and to have, almost overnight, a star-spanning culture.

Creating their own universe from scratch has allowed DnA to turn standard sci-fi tropes on their ear, not the least of which is the concept of an all-powerful, self-aware computer AI

I think that one of the things that is certainly implicit if not explicit in "Hypernaturals" is that the Quantinuum has been around for 100 years now...but how much more than 100 years is that? How much further from our future this is has been left intentionally ambiguous. The Quantinuum could have happened literally overnight only five or ten years from now. It's not the far, far future of "Legion" or "Star Trek" or "Warhammer" or any of those things. This almost happened as if a technological spell was cast overnight, and this is the world we're in now. That gives the book a different feel. And there is a sense of, not science gone mad, but science empowered to such an extent that it entirely dominates the people living within it. That is a thing that is definitely going to get explored.

Lanning: That idea we were talking about previously about technology we use on a day-to-day basis often without thinking about where it came from. You have no idea how it came about, what its implications are or even how it works. When you get to the point of a singularity, that's where things can go into any area you want to. You can make it exciting or scary or adventurous depending on the story you're writing. Just don't make it mundane and boring! But if your benchmark is that we're operating today in a society where you've got wi-fi, cloud technology, holographic TVs and all that stuff that's welcomed into your life on a daily basis when no one knows how it works or the longterm implications of using that stuff, then one of the areas we're exploring is the impact that vast, hyper lead of technology can have when you don't really understand it fully. That's a very interesting idea that we felt you could plug into a superhero context to discover a rich vein of story ideas.

The other side of the equation in "Hypernaturals" is the characters who live in this world. We've established the idea in the book that there is a rotation of heroes who take on the name Hypernaturals, but after the latest team goes disappearing, the lead characters in the book seem to be the four people stepping up to the plate. Do you have a set definition of who the main character or characters are for this series, or does the wide cast mean you can rotate any number of heroes in as you need?

Abnett: I think there's a bit of both, to be fair. It is a very broad, epic story. We have potentially a very, very major cast, and we'll be bringing into prominence characters who are secondary or subsidiary. Supporting cast will definitely get their moment to shine. Certainly, we express that in different ways. Each issue has a six-page flashback to some character-forming moment in the history of Hypernaturals which informs the action of the main issue.

Though it's certainly true to say that the first year of the comic -- the first 12 issues -- is a self-contained novel of a story, and the major protagonists in that story are going to include Thinkwell, Bewilder, Clone 45 and that old guard coming out of retirement to look after the situation that's happened. But if we say at this point "They're our main characters," that would indicate that the Hypernaturals that went missing at the beginning of the series probably aren't coming back to play an important role. So we're not saying that! At all! [Laughs] We will see other groupings of characters. But we did like the idea of picking up on some characters who had stepped down out of the limelight but then had to come back and do this. Or there's also Halfshell and Shoal who had to step up because they hadn't been given the chance before. But there are other characters we're going to see. There are at least a couple of other ex-Hypernaturals who will move into the fray, and we're going to see several of their rogue's gallery who you don't know about yet because the comic hasn't been running for 30 years. But we'll have a story that introduces everything they've faced before and why those things are still significantly important.

The Hypernaturals who went missing in the series' first issue will return at some point…or will they?

I think one of our trademark things is that we delight in that story turn where we'll pull a story line around at a 90-degree angle when you least expect it. We'll do things to shock you. And we're trying to establish enough of this universe so you know where you stand in order to be able to do these sorts of things.

One of the core tensions in the cast so far seems to be an odd love triangle between former teammates Bewilder and Clone 45 as well as missing new Hypernatural Magnetar. We haven't seen all three of these characters together because the various romances span years, but it still seems to be a major source of concern for Bewilder who went from team leader to PR person and back again. How much does that classic idea serve to balance out all the crazy, forward-thinking world building?

Abnett: I think you've got to have that in a cosmic book, to be honest. I think there are so few immediate things around you to ground you as a reader that having human characters who behave like human beings in a way you identify with is really, really important. We both always thought of the great superhero team books -- cosmic or not -- to behave like soap operas. Soap operas are wonderful in terms of the way they develop dynamics between characters and continue story lines that have been built up day-after-day, week-after-week. And the love triangle is a very soap opera kind of thing. We've got the incredibly successful, very famous woman who has moved on to a younger model who's now the hot thing because her previous relationship was with a guy who's not as dramatic as he used to be. That's absolutely the stuff of soap operas. I hope we do that justice in terms of making all three of them sympathetic and credible in the way their relationships develop and how they think about each other.

Lanning: I totally agree. Unless you can relate to the characters, you're going to lose them in a load of tecnhobabble otherwise. To give the readers relatable characters and characters with relatable problems, it makes so much more use of the cast. They're not just superhero capes or super sci-fi characters. We've existed on this earth for however long we've been here, and I think you could go back to cavemen and find a love triangle. Those are problems that will transcend millennia and instantly give you readers a hook. And as a writer, you can explore ideas about fame and insecurities. I think you'll find a lot of our big three characters are trying to understand their place and role in the world now that things have passed them by. One of the reasons we created the iteration idea of serving a five-year term on the Hypernaturals was that it gave you a nice framework in which to analyze these characters whose time has passed them by. They have to come to terms with who they are and what their role is in this new world will be. These are ideas that people can relate to, and apart from anything else, it's creatively very rewarding for us.

At the end of issue #2, the new/old team of replacement Hypernaturals has survived their first mission. The big mystery hanging over them now is where the last team disappeared to and whether their former foe Sublime was able to orchestrate it while he's locked up by the Quantinuum. What's the next step in the investigation?

Including the FCBD prelude, the first storyline of "The Hypernaturals" is a 13-issue novel

Abnett: Immediately, we are very much pushing on with what's happening in the moment. We want to keep up with how these characters are interacting with each other and whether or not they can pursue this critical investigation into the missing team, what's causing this terrible disaster and all that stuff. But I think one of the elements we've begun to seed into the first couple of issues and also the Free Comic Book Day issue is the increased significance of things that appear to be very minor at the beginning. We're not going to shift away to anything drastically new, but we are going to bring elements into the story that will spice things up very much and open up new vistas as to why things that didn't seem connected have been connected all along.

Lanning: Again, stylistically we've used that six-page flashback sequence in each issue of introducing other iterations of the Hypernaturals and fleshing out character moments from the past, which is something we'll keep doing. Against the backdrop of what will be an ongoing and evolving mystery adventure, you'll have these insights into the current characters as well as characters from the past playing out in the flashbacks. That's great fun and gives us a really cool way to flesh out the universe. I think more than anything, it is like peeling away the layers of an onion as you get into the mystery. It's our rather clumsy attempt to do a cosmic "Watchmen." [Laughter]

In the past, because you've been working for Marvel and DC you've had the opportunity to do mini series or other specials to flesh out the world. It feels like those six-page flashback sequences provide the same functionality while remaining all within one book. Any chance that long term you'll expand things out and have characters star in their own side projects?

Abnett: I would say that for the first year, 12 issues is our commitment. Or if you include the Free Comic Book Day issue, which was our "pre-credit sequence," then it's a 13-issue story that forms essentially a big novel-chunk story that I think will be very satisfying when you get to the end. Of course, we have ideas for where this can go after that, and that might be a point at which we could diverge and add new series in. That could be very fun to do. But for now, we're very excited by the idea of telling one complete story that moves between characters and has a number of threads that ultimately play out in the most satisfying way.

Lanning: And I think the overall idea that we're using this initial maxi-story to introduce people to the characters and their world. Hopefully, people will like it enough to come back and visit. Once you've got that desire and people are coming back, it also gives you the opportunity to explain and expand on those characters and that world. That's where story possibilities for a mini series here or a side adventure there can crop up. But our main focus right now, as Dan said, it telling that novel-length first story because once people are into that, we hope to revisit it and exploit it to the max.

"The Hypernaturals" #3 goes on sale September 26 from BOOM! Studios.

TAGS:  boom! studios, the hypernaturals, hypernaturals, dna, dan abnett, andy lanning, guardians of the galaxy

 
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